Jon Lester was working in the future. And he didn’t want to come back to the present.
Why not? Because Jon was in a future where the skills of his colleagues in IBM’s HR department were being used effectively, such as on workforce planning, and not wasted on busywork, such as gathering data from multiple systems. It’s a future where once-onerous data gathering tasks are done automatically, helping save time and energy for HR staff to focus on delivering equitable processes and reviews in support of personnel and promotion decisions.
We could all benefit from this future. So how did Jon get there?
In a pilot for IBM Consulting in North America, IBM saved 12,000 hours in one quarter
In the same pilot, completed work that normally took 10 weeks in 5 weeks
Jon was Director of HR Service Delivery & Transformation at IBM, managing HR operations teams in six delivery centers around the world. The role meant that he regularly received new IBM innovations in the AI and automation space—before they became available to external clients—to test their limits in real-world business scenarios.
One day in 2021, Jon and his team received a new technology developed by the IBM Watson® Research Lab—a trial version of software now known as the IBM watsonx Orchestrate solution.
They thought it was a new iteration of familiar digital assistant and conversational AI technology, until they began working with it. Soon they were creating a digital worker to assist real IBM HR employees, automating 12,000 hours of previously manual data-gathering and data-entry tasks in one quarter (see detail later in this article). They understood that the capabilities of this new software were about to transform daily work not just for IBM’s HR department, but potentially for businesses everywhere.
Following the success of this first digital worker project, Jon was offered a new role within IBM HR. He was looking forward to extending the new capabilities to a new area. As Jon puts it: “I told them I want to take the future of work with me.”
IBM HR Business Partners are HR employees who help IBM business units develop and retain talent. One IBM HR Business Partner and their teammates faced a large workload related to IBM HR’s quarterly promotions process, the purpose of which is to distribute promotions in a fair and timely manner and to help form promotion plans for employees not selected in the current quarter. The process’s success is critical to developing and retaining top talent within IBM.
But the process was extremely time and labor intensive. It stretched up to 10 weeks out of every 12-week quarter, putting serious time pressure on the HR Business Partners’ other job responsibilities, such as strategic workforce planning, including organizational and skills transformation with a focus on inclusion.
“It was heavily reliant on collecting static data from various systems,” the IBM HR Business Partner explains. This IBM HR Business Partner covered the North America region for IBM Consulting™. But this still involved pulling data on 15,000–17,000 employees, from several systems, into spreadsheets with about 75 columns of data. She’d share that data with the appropriate IBM Talent, HR and business managers and leaders—hundreds in all. “This manual work was a huge obstacle of time and effort standing in the way of our real work: helping the business units evaluate the data and identify who was ready for promotion, who was getting close to being ready and who was not, in addition to helping them identify what’s needed to get those that are not ready, ready for a future cycle,” says the IBM HR Business Partner.
Thus, pulling and displaying the data necessary for the promotions process was the first task for which Jon and his team decided to try IBM watsonx Orchestrate. A collaboration between the HR Service Delivery & Transformation team, IBM Watson Research, the IBM IT department and the IBM HR Business Partner and their HR colleagues led to the creation and implementation of IBM’s first digital HR worker.
The digital worker is called HiRo, and it is dramatically transforming day-to-day work during the promotions process. “HiRo is a rules-based system,“ explains Jon. “It performs many of the repetitive, manual activities that the IBM HR Business Partner or their teammates used to have to do alongside their higher value, more strategic work.”
HiRo now handles the information compiling and formatting tasks that used to take so much of the IBM HR Business Partner’s time. The spreadsheets are gone. The employee managers and leaders now receive an updated view of their employees’ data that displays whether the employees have met objective promotion criteria and what steps need to be taken—by the employees and the managers—for fulfilling baseline requirements.
A concern with automation, of course, is that eliminating human work may eliminate human jobs. The use of HiRo shows how automation can elevate human jobs. By pulling and displaying data, HiRo gives the IBM HR Business Partner and the employee managers more time to consider which of the employees who meet the baseline, objective criteria should be nominated for promotion. It also affords more time for coaching other employees to help them meet the criteria, if not in the current cycle then in the next. As the IBM HR Business Partner puts it, “The time the HR Business Partners and the managers are saving frees us up to do all the other things that we have to do anyway, and we don't have to work long hours to keep up.”
And although HiRo does not include machine learning capabilities, it does adhere to the ethics underlying IBM’s AI technology by ensuring data privacy and security for personal information (PI), and transparency around where the data is stored and pulled from. The balance of duties between HiRo, the IBM HR Business Partner and the other stakeholders ensures that the actual workforce decisions are made by people. “Any decision that involves a pay raise or a nomination is made by the manager, the HR Business Partner and the practice lead,” Jon explains. Further, the cross-functional team completed an assessment to ensure that HiRo aligns with these five principles of tech ethics:
Before the HiRo project, the first question Jon had about IBM watsonx Orchestrate was what makes it different than a chatbot or an RPA robot. One of his team’s recent successes with new technology was creating IBM’s AskHR conversational AI, which automates more than 80 common HR processes. AskHR has strong adoption rates, and it saves the HR department, IBM employees and managers significant amounts of time spent completing or supporting HR processes.
“Conversational AI and RPA are also useful and valuable for automating manual, objective tasks,” says Jon. But there are things they can’t do that IBM watsonx Orchestrate can. “AskHR does its tasks really well, but it can only do them one at a time. It can’t link transactions across multiple processes or systems. And a chatbot lacks long-term memory. The moment you switch it off, it forgets that you exist. It has no memory of what you did before.”
When the team began working with IBM watsonx Orchestrate, they quickly noticed the capabilities that set it apart. Jon explains: “It can engage with multiple people, of different roles, at the same time. It remembers what you told it yesterday and can apply that information to actions today, where applicable. Once the rules are set by humans, HiRo will uniformly apply them. And it lets you build its skills: you can train it do certain tasks within one process, but you can easily have it apply those same skills to other processes. So you can build use case after use case. It blows chatbots out of the water. It really is changing our understanding of the future of work.”
IBM HR first piloted HiRo in the second quarter of 2022, for IBM Consulting in North America. In previous quarters, for each employee manager, it took about eight hours to gather all of the necessary data and fill in the relevant nomination forms. Approximately 1,800 managers used HiRo during the Q2 2022 pilot, and they completed the data-gathering and data-entry work in about 1 hour each, collectively saving about 12,000 hours in that quarter’s promotions process.
The time savings, of course, greatly accelerated the promotions process for the quarter. “We did the work of ten weeks in five weeks,” says the IBM HR Business Partner.
Based on this success, HiRo has some growth opportunities of its own. It’s about to be rolled out to other IBM Consulting regions worldwide. “We anticipate that the other regions where we roll this out will achieve similar results. The potential savings over four quarters could be 50,000 hours per year,” says Jon.
Beyond saving time, HiRo and other digital workers’ highest value may be their potential to transform jobs. We are in the midst of a global labor and talent shortage. People are expected to do more with less all the time. This technology can help. “It’s not just that the work of four people can be done by one, it’s also that that one person's role is totally changed,” says Jon. “They can spend a much greater portion of their time on the most strategic work—like workforce planning and equity, and they can use IBM watsonx Orchestrate to supply the data they need to do that important work.”
So what’s next? While HiRo itself will be rolled out to more regions in late 2022, it is about to gain several digital colleagues. The HR department is already using learnings from the promotions cycle to develop new digital workers for other processes. The new prototypes include an Onboarding Assistant and Learning Event Manager, and more processes are in the pipeline for evaluation.
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